The Palais Theatre: Melbourne's Home of Live Music
The Palais Theatre: Melbourne's Home of Live MusicContributors
Copyright Renegade Films
This short film is an appreciation of the cultural contribution that the Palais has made to St Kilda and the city of Melbourne.
The theatre is undergoing restoration in 2016-17, which will preserve the heritage value of the site and ensure the Palais remains a live performance venue and cultural icon in St Kilda for many generations to come.
Hi, I'm Brian Nankervis, speaking from the Palais Theatre in St Kilda, where RocKwiz Live is about to salute the ARIA Hall of Fame before a sellout crowd of almost 3,000 people. The Palais is the largest seated theatre in Australia, and an incredible example of early art deco architecture. Some of the biggest names in show business have performed in this theatre.
But first, a bit of history. Did you know that there have been several different venues named the Palais on the same site in St Kilda? In 1913, a dance pavilion named the Palais de Danse was constructed where the Palais Theatre stands today. Built by the Phillips brothers, three Americans who owned neighbouring Luna Park, the Palais de Danse was a dance hall until the onset of World War I, when it was converted into a cinema. It seated 4,000 patrons who watched silent films accompanied by a 12-piece orchestra.
The picture theatre was such a big success that the Phillips brothers decided to expand. In 1920, the Palais de Danse structure was dismantled and re-erected next door, where it resumed life as a dance hall. The new Palais Pictures building was designed by the American architects Walter Burley Griffin and his wife Marion. The couple had arrived in Melbourne in 1913 after they won the competition for the design of Canberra, Australia's new capital city. In 1925, the Griffin's designed an elaborate facade for the new Palais Pictures.
On February 10th, 1926, just days before it was due to be completed, a fire started in the stage area and the entire building was destroyed. The Griffins had moved to Sydney, so the Phillips brothers commissioned a new architect, Henry E. White to build a larger and much more spectacular picture theatre. Opening in November, 1927, the new Palais was a picture palace on the grand scale. Described in Melbourne newspapers as, "the most beautiful theatre in Australasia." It had a seating capacity of almost 3,000, making it the largest cinema in the country.
In July, 1929, Palais Pictures was among the first suburban cinemas in Melbourne to screen talkies. Throughout the 1930s and '40s, it was the favorite place for Melburnians to go to the movies. Going to the Palais back then was an event that's difficult to imagine in today's multiplex world. There was only one screen, and it showed two full-length films every night, watched by thousands of people.
Before the first movie started there would be 30 minutes of live music by the Palais Orchestra, led by Harry Jacobs, who was house conductor for 22 years. There was also variety acts involving singers, dancers, and comedians. If you bought a ticket on a Saturday night, you also gained admission to the Palais de Danse next door, where you could go after the main feature and dance into the small hours.
The coming of television hit cinema attendance hard during the 1950s. The big art deco picture palaces like the Palais were particularly vulnerable, as they relied on filling thousands of seats every night. Sadly, most of them were demolished over the coming decades.
But the Palais managed to survive by reinventing itself as a live concert venue. Artists who performed at the Palais over the next two decades included Bob Hope, Harry Belafonte, Shirley Bassey, Eartha Kitt, Johnny Mathis, Louis Armstrong, the Beach Boys, Roy Orbison, Tom Jones, and memorably on the first tour of Australia, the Rolling Stones.
In the early 1960s, the Palais diversified further, and gave many Victorians their first taste of both opera and ballet. Joan Hammond sang soprano on the Palais stage with the Australian Elizabeth Opera Company in 1960. Two years later, Edgley International brought out members of Russia's Bolshoi Ballet, and Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev appeared with the Australian ballet in 1964.
Movies returned to the theatre in the early '60s, with the Melbourne Film Festival being held at the Palais from 1962 until 1982. The musical, Jesus Christ Superstar spent a long run at the theatre in 1973, and then again in 1976. And dame Joan Sutherland appeared in the Merry Widow with the Australian opera in 1979. Ballet continued to prove the big draw with audiences during the '70s.
But the '80s were lean years. The opening of the Victorian Arts Centre in 1982 drew opera and ballet away from the Palais. And then, in the early 1990s, the restored Princess and the Regent Theatres attracted all the big musicals.
But, just as it had shown many times before, the Palais weathered this storm. In November 2014, saving the now crumbling Palais became a hot issue in Victoria's state election. Tex Perkins grabbed headlines when he stood for the seat of Albert Park on this single issue.
But then Labor commits $13 million to save the Palais. Martin Foley beats Tex Perkins in the elections and becomes minister for--
Creative Industries. What else? So thank you, minister, for saving not only the Palais, but my sanity. Would you join me?
Welcome to the Palais to the Hall of Fame.
And so, the Palais inducted into The Age Music Victoria Hall of Fame. Today, the Palais is primarily a concert venue, and has been called the home of live music in Melbourne, and remains the largest seated theatre in Australia. We'll never know how many Melburnians have sat in the darkness of this beautiful theatre, and watched silent movies, talkies, ballet, opera, a musical or a rock concert. But the Palais Theatre's contribution to Melbourne's culture has been huge. It has fit our soul for generations.
So, it's goodnight for me and the RocKwiz crew from the Palais Theatre-- a beautiful, beautiful venue, that's been operating since it opened its doors in 1927. Come down and check it out for yourself sometime.